Brigsby Bear

The happiness of a child lies in the weekly broadcast of his favorite furry animal named ‘Brigsby Bear’. First time filmmaker Dave McCary brings to us his film starring one of the film’s writers, Kyle Mooney as James, a thirty-something man-child who is obsessed with his favorite television show, owning every cassette, and several pieces of memorabilia. After the show’s untimely cancellation, James’s life takes a turn for the extreme, forcing the number one fan to now finish the show himself, for better or worse. Along the way, James must learn to cope with the realities of a new world that he knows nothing about because he has never stepped foot outside of his protective weekly bubble. ‘Brigsby Bear’ is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief sexuality, drug material and teen partying, and teams up the acclaimed Saturday Night Live duo once more of Mooney and Beck Bennett.

Now that you’ve read my synopsis for ‘Brigsby Bear’, you should know that everything that you think you know about this movie is only an illusion. This is very much an independent dramedy that is more clever than what meets the eye. The plot and ensuing story surrounding it revolve around this surprising shock twist that takes place within the opening fifteen minutes of this film that completely blew my mind, changing the tone and material alike, and then proceeding on from there as A result of this big bang. This is a touch that is certainly nothing groundbreaking or original, but it does lend itself to the confidence that the duo of McCary and Mooney possess in their film to appeal to the audience that they have practically alienated themselves from, with anyone thinking this was going to be a goofball comedy similar to Mooney’s SNL stick. For Mooney, this is A Chance to breakout from a stereotype that has garnered him minimal time on that show, and to trade it in for a hearty performance that proves he is a force to be reckoned with when compared to the barrage of SNL greats that have and have not gone on to make a name for themselves when they no longer go live at 11:30 PM on Saturday night.

Once that plot twist that I mentioned happens early on during the first act, it feels very much like the film is playing into our nostalgia as an audience for the kinds of television show characters and worlds alike that we immersed ourselves in when we the young adolescent age, and pulled the wool from James eyes in the same manner that all of us ensued when we were forced to grow up. This is of course A story with A bit more devastation to it, and that mood layers itself with A screenplay that I never would’ve expected from the guys in The Lonely Island of all things. The film does stay a bit one note remedially, hinting at a bigger picture in reveal that those few possible subplots never pursue with much more persistence. There were a few aspects with the production of this television show that raised a few good questions in my mind, but it just felt like me making the direction into something that never became. This is a 92 minute brief engagement, so to say that this film sticks close to its three act structure, is putting it firmly. With that said, I can’t say that I was ever bored or disengaged from this film, and my fear of this man-child’s fragile psyche playing into this tight-rope of nerves between past and present that has brought him to this day, always kept me watching closely for the cause-and-effect that a sheltered life can leave on the mind of a dreamer with miles to travel creatively.

McCary’s film embraces the concepts of James past metaphorically through the eyes of the bear, so when the idea pops into his head to continue on with the show, it not only feels like A longing for his sheltered past, but also a halting of progress for his ability to move on, a concept that the film stands firmly at on the crossroads of repetition and influence. On the latter, this film becomes kind of this character study for James and how his interaction with other kids his age can feel can come across as mimicking. He’s only known this one thing for the entirety of his life, so it feels like the typical character from another world who is being taught our way of life for the first time, except here it warrants those concepts because we feel a great empathetic pull for James and the new experiences that he will never ever fully grasp for being late to the fold because of his limited past. That’s why the first half of the film was marginally better than the second half for me; its deranged nature comes across as the factor that gives it wings, and once that’s put away for good, the film’s moral framing hints that it’s OK for James to feel this reliant on Brigsby, A motion that I found difficult to cope with for the well being mentally of this nearly closed book.

The aesthetic touch is perhaps some of my favorite aspects of McCary’s film, as the television show within this movie feels like a callback to 80’s public access productions where the minimal money reaped the bigger monetary reward. Because so much of ‘Brigsby Bear’ feels cheap in design, it caters to the spandex generation of children who grew up knowing and loving shows with this kind of terribly under-utilized effects and dated synth-pop musical score to boost. The Lonely Island are known for this kind of thing, but while we as an audience might giggle from time-to-time, wondering what the appeal is to it, the film very much envelopes itself into every character that it comes into contact with, framing Brigsby as an irresistible hero just waiting to be believed in by all who take on his VHS challenge.

Kyle Mooney can rest assured that his performance as James will be the memorable role for him that turned the tide in his once one-dimensional career into A remarkable transformation as an acting darling. In James, we embrace a delivery from Mooney that is soft and gentle like a child, but rebellious and crass in the defiance of an expanding teen. With a lesser actor, this would come across as A condescending lead, playing more into a gimmick rather than an immersing, but Mooney’s shy and bashful delivery prove that he is the right man for the job, being not fully aware of the terrible things that have transpired in his early career. This makes him A character who is easy to get behind and embrace because we never like to see bad things happen to children, A thought that is ludicrous considering Mooney is 32 years old, but it’s A testament to how committed he embraced this cryptic adolescent. Handing in supporting turns are Clare Danes , Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, and Matt Walsh, A usual one line cameo artist who finally gets A major helping in this script. Everyone plays a pivotal role in James life, but it’s great to see so many memorable faces committing to something off-screen as different for A supposed comedy like this.

THE VERDICT – Make no mistakes about it, this bear isn’t soft or cuddly, it’s an earnestly eye-opening look at the dangers of addiction that never needs drugs or alcohol to roar with other cautionary tales. Mooney’s performance is right on cue, balancing the sentimental with the synthetic, and McCary takes a huge leap in the director’s race in only his first feature film. The lack of comedy might alienate some of its audience, but if you stay patient, this unusually poignant melancholic plot will steal your heart and your respect. Everything you want with nothing you are expecting. The less you know going in, the better.

7/10

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power

The former Vice President of America is back at it again, this time with dire urgency for his cause riding high amongst a new naive president. ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power’ takes place more than A decade after ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ brought climate change into the heart of popular culture in 2006. In this riveting and educational follow-up that shows just how close we are to a real energy revolution, Vice President Al Gore continues his tireless fight, traveling around the world training an army of climate champions and influencing about international climate policy. With the elected four year incoming of president Donald Trump, Cameras follow him behind the scenes in moments private and public, funny and poignant, as he pursues the empowering notion that while the stakes have never been higher, the perils of climate change can be overcome with human ingenuity and passion. ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power’ is directed by the team of Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen, and is rated PG for thematic elements and some troubling images.

Whether you like or dislike Al Gore and everything that he stands for politically, you must applaud the man for taking such a general interest in standing up for the well being of our planet when no one else will. In ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power’, Gore continues that march with a 95 minute lecture on where we as a society have advanced or decreased in progress over the last decade when it comes to solar energy, climate change, and overall infrastructure for those countries not as fortunate as the bigger ones when it comes to spending. I myself did enjoy the first film, and found this one to be an equally insightful piece, despite some problems with the structure of the documentary that definitely peaked out some less than honorable intentions creatively with where the film’s material should be firmly planted. For anyone who hasn’t seen the first film, nor knows much about overall climate change, this movie will be A competent enough companion piece to opening your eyes for the first time about the urgency of time running out with each passing year. A fact that Gore himself narrates passionately throughout the picture in an unapologetic front.

As a host, Gore certainly feels like the right man for the job. Since losing the 2000 presidential election, Al has taken a stance in witnessing first-hand the kinds of problems shaping our world that other political figures have turned a blind eye to. Over the course of this picture, his narration, shaped with some exceptional editing work behind the lens, details in full the kind of warning signs that are plaguing our world if we refuse to act quickly, and it certainly feels effective coming from someone who not only spoke at a few conferences over those ten years documented in the film, but also wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty in searching out the truths of these problems first hand on land. My only problem with Gore as a figure is that the documentary itself might be better fleshed out if it spoke to the audience through just voice narration, and not so much visual narration because it can at times feel slightly distracting when the film pauses its progress to document several pieces of Gore’s history as a political figure, and current day patron to those with a similar cause. Quite too often, the film kind of becomes The Al Gore Show, and that’s fine from a man with so much passion for the causes, but If I wanted to watch an informative documentary on the 43rd Vice President of the United States, I would seek one out first hand.

I did mention briefly that the technical work of this picture definitely does a service to understanding and captivating the mind-sets of everyone watching at home, and the overall aesthetic work feels very rich for a documentary presentation. The camera angles used in capturing the polar icecaps melting effects, as well as the historical stock footage from landscapes like India, Africa, and even Miami, Florida who have all been ravaged by free-flowing water, serves a greater purpose in supporting fact in a visual capacity, and it couldn’t be put together any more impactful than that. Also, the musical score from composer Jeff Beal certainly adds an element of impending doom to go hand-in-hand with Gore’s lectures, while channeling the ominous tones of an epic disaster flick that really feeds into A ‘life imitating art’ kind of feel. Typically I review around ten documentaries a year, and while this one isn’t the best overall, I can tell you that it is an early favorite for technical mastery of that particular field. For sight and sound, you couldn’t ask for A better experience that (like our own world’s shifting) never stops moving around us.

As an independent voter, one of the jobs that I take seriously as a film reviewer with films like these are if they cater into a political party’s agenda, and with that I give you the single biggest sting that this movie’s final grade will take on its audience. If you’re Democrat, you won’t feel a thing, but for the rest of us there’s the obvious dropping of responsibility method that Gore pokes and prods at with the sensitivity of an electric eel. How do I determine it propaganda? Well, the film has no qualms about singling out presidents Bush Jr and Trump for their roles in ignoring policy that could otherwise save some of these disaster problems, but then completely ignores president Obama entirely for what role he played during these events. Considering the disasters that this film captures are over the last ten years, and Obama was president for eight of those ten, it lacks the responsibility of pushing the envelope further in asking the kinds of questions where that Democratic president was when the Indian people were being rushed from their homes after terrifying tsunamis. To hammer this home, there’s even a message in the closing credits to vote smart, an ideal that doesn’t really need a reminder in this kind of film. Speaking of pushing the envelope, the film doesn’t present a countering side to all of the ground work that Gore is laying out. During the third act, we’re shown a big city in Texas who has gone 100% Renewable energy, but the question remains why other cities haven’t leached onto this method. I feel like the film drops the ball immensely in provocative journalism, leaving us all with only one side of the renewable argument. Even if the answer is as simple as companies lining their pockets with cash, that side deserves to be exposed, but directors Shenk and Cohen are a bit too clean cut to tug at that tempting string, even if it is the best thing for the direction of the film.

THE VERDICT – ‘An Inconvenient Sequel’ isn’t inconvenient, it’s just simply ignorant of the entire opposing argument that it only hints at in the shadows. This sequel is effective enough in providing the material through haunting imagery, as well as mind-stirring facts, but lacks the grave urgency of the Academy Award winning first film that sealed up all of the angles without getting its hands dirty in the political spectrum. There’s plenty to enjoy about Shenk and Cohen’s informative piece from an awakening perspective, and if you are part of this cause it is definitely a must see, just expect the material of the planet as well as the political.

6/10

Wind River

The man responsible for last year’s ‘Hell or High Water’ returns to the silver screen to pen and direct the much anticipated follow up ‘Wind River’. In it, US Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers a body in the rugged wilderness of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The FBI, anxious to solve the case quickly, sends in rookie agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), but she is unprepared for the difficulties created by the oppressive weather and isolation of the Wyoming winter. When she employs Cory as a tracker, the two venture deep into a world ravaged by violence and the elements that will turn their cold, quiet town into an exposing bloodbath that will keep the locals on their toes. ‘Wind River’ is rated R for strong violence, a scene depicting rape, disturbing imagery, and adult language.

Westerns are very much alive deep in the heart of writer/director Taylor Sheridan, and it’s within those elements where ‘Wind River’ gains much of its environmental element in affecting this story. Taking place deep in the mountains of the Wyoming wilderness, this film hinges on the concept of predator and prey, and those kind of necessary evils that we need to keep other evils from getting in. This is very much a detective mystery drama underneath it all, but done so with the kind of twists that Christopher Nolan engaged in 1999’s ‘Insomnia’, in that it explores those often forgotten areas in the American landscape that abides by its own rules. Here, the cold, mountains, and even dangerous creatures living amongst these people play pivotal roles in the way everything is pursued and accomplished. Jeremy Renner’s character echoes towards the end of the film that “this isn’t a place where people live, it’s a place where they survive”, and that concept will tell you everything that you need to know about this chilling setting that often crossed into my comfortable theater surroundings and made me feel the very effects that these actors were feeling.

From the effectively gorgeous cinematography by Ben Richardson, in all of its long shots of the establishing isolated landscapes, to the small contributing factors like Olsen’s character sniffling every few lines of dialogue from her influence of a Southern hometown, it all blends in accordingly, and we feel like these factors present an additional obstacle in solving this already difficult task of matching a face to a heinous crime. There’s also much to be said about the re-occuring snow storms that come and go like the wind, swallowing away the evidence from the brutality that envelopes these once sacred lands. With the storm, comes this lone case of murder fresh out of nowhere, so in a sense the establishing narrative is reflecting that of the bone-chilling elements that are keeping people in doors, comforting for their own safeties alike from the double entendre that keeps them on their toes. This refreshing side of setting proved that there’s still many sides to the world that can still be effective in setting the mood precisely for the kind of themes that a script is trying to capture, and sometimes that very environment can feel like the central antagonist in the race against the clock.

As for narration, what I greatly enjoyed about this film is that we are coming into these families and situations with little to no knowledge about their pasts, but Sheridan’s patience and faith in his audience to fill in the blanks for themselves pays off dearly in subtly pulling the blanket of reveal back even further. Some stories will beat an audience over the head with exposition, but Sheridan’s point of artistic integrity hints that we may already know the answers to what is happening, it is just up to us (like the authorities in the film) to put these pieces together in seeing what shapes the character who we see before us. From a tonal perspective, the film feels like it picks up remarkably where HBO’s ‘True Detective’ left off, presenting a possible season three that feeds into the very adult world of people and places behind closed doors. The mystery of the film does offer some truly compelling twists and turns, but never does so in a way that abandons its plotting or pacing in making the answers feel like anything out of this world. That human element is what truly reigns supreme here, catering to the emotional pull of grievance and what it takes from every one of when we lose someone who cannot be replaced. I was very much on the edge of my seat throughout the entirety of this film, and the ending left me beyond satisfied when the predator finally does catch up to the prey and the hounds of justice sink in for a satisfyingly therapeutic conclusion that couldn’t have gone any better.

What slight problems that I did have with the screenplay were nitpicks at best, but cater more to the usual cliches that you sometimes see in these Westerns. For one, there is a big shootout during the third act of the film, and despite the overload of bullets firing off into the air from these pistols, not one person in the film re-loads their chambers even once. This has always been something that I look for first in these ammunition riddled films, and unfortunately this movie is no different for falling by the wayside of believability. Also during this shootout, we get it played back to us in real time everything that happened with this woman’s murder. The problem is that from a narrative standpoint it is only explaining to us as an audience what happened. The authorities in the movie still haven’t pieced it all together. Yet after the gunfire goes off, the mystery antagonist is being questioned, and Renner’s character comments a line of dialogue that clues in that he knows everything that happened, despite them never figuring it out or being a part of the reveal rundown that caters exclusively to just the audience.

What does cover those light nitpicks is the performances from a trilogy of actors who really shared the respective load in communicating these human first kind of people. Jeremy Renner’s character is my lone favorite character of 2017. As Cory, we meet a man who is emotionally weathered by all that he has lost in his past, but the future ahead of possibly earning a way to right his wrongs is what keeps him moving through the cold. Cory doesn’t feel so much like a vigilante as he does a protector to the community that he loves, so there’s very much a lot of empathy to his resilience that makes him the force that everyone calls. Elizabeth Olsen’s character embraces a transformation from start to finish that proves to you that appearances aren’t everything. During her first few scenes, this tight-knit town kind of writes her off as just another FBI snob, but as the film progresses you start to embrace the very heart of this character who most certainly can take a hit and keep on coming. The chemistry between Olsen and Renner is certainly evident from ‘The Avengers’ movies, but it’s so much more than that here. Because of movie expectations, we are led to believe that these two will eventually hook up, but I’m glad that the film chose to ignore this instinct, instead painting them as two characters from different sides of the geological track who can help one another in complicated world of detective work. Besides these two, I also greatly enjoyed my reminder of the great actor that is Graham Greene. If you’ve seen films like ‘The Green Mile’ or ‘Maverick’, he will be familiar to you, but every so often this guy pops up to act out a character who knocks on the door of stealing the movie. This fact caters to Sheridan’s style of putting an elderly veteran in each movie to have him keep the youth on their toes. Here, Graham is a grizzly sheriff who doesn’t take kindly to outsiders stepping on his territory. At first you kind think he’s just a rude know-it-all, but he quickly morphs into the pulse of the movie that narrates the almost foreign environments that we’re embracing here. This trio couldn’t be better plucked, and they vibrate enjoyably rich off of one another.

THE VERDICT – ‘Wind River’ does tackle some rising water in the gruesome and sometimes suffocating tension that Sheridan provides in this character-driven whodunnit?. Renner and Olsen follow suit, assembling two enjoyable leads whose fire burning deep for the sacrifices of justice keep us warm from the deathly cold that envelopes us completely with this isolated setting. This one will stick with you, even if only for the revealing intentional cause during the film’s closing moments that remind us of those forgotten far too often. Whether you’re in the mood for an effective crime thriller or a western with a dramatic pulse, let the wind sweep you away with this one.

9/10

Logan Lucky

The down-and-out luck of two loser brothers hinge on the theft of millions that will earn them the tag ‘Logan Lucky’. Trying to reverse a family curse, brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum), who is recently unemployed, and Clyde Logan (Adam Driver), who is forever with one arm, set out to execute an elaborate robbery during the legendary Coca-Cola 600 race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. To do so, they will need the help of a crime mastermind Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) who himself is behind bars. The brothers ban together to construct a plan to get Joe out of the hole, as well as construct the step-by-step procedure in ripping off the Nascar circuit without getting caught or even losing their lives. ‘Logan Lucky’ is the comeback movie from critically acclaimed retired director Steven Soderbergh, and is rated PG-13 for adult language and some crude comments.

Thank the movie cinema lord above that Steven Soderbergh is back behind the camera where he belongs. Following an impressive career with box office hits like ‘Traffic’, ‘Contagion’, and of course the ‘Oceans’ trilogy, Steven opted to take a break from the silver screen to front success in the television market, and while I wish him all of the luck in any kind of media that he attempts, it is clear that the man has not lost his touch with visual storytelling that fronts arguably the best narrative in a Soderbergh film that I have ever seen. ‘Logan Lucky’ is definitely not without its problems. At nearly two hours long, the film does start to overstay its welcome with a third act that presents some unnecessary tension and dramatic pull during a time when it feels like the movie should be wrapping up. But on the overall spectrum, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have a fun time with the wacky hijinks surrounding this historically unlucky family, and their quest to restore their good name amongst a town that has practically written them off a long time ago. To that degree, Steven too feels like the right man for the job, and his latest is proof that this critically heralded director still has some strong days ahead, even if he is venturing back to familiar territory.

With four heist movies now under his belt, it’s difficult not to credit Soderbergh with being the best heist movie director of all time, if such an award truly exists. For ‘Logan Lucky’, I will credit him as a director and writer because we all know Steven plays with pseudonyms in his cast when he chooses to do things incognito. With helming this script, he manages to add some original flares in narration to keep it fresh along the way, pointing to the belief that he has in his audience to be patient with this developing plot and characters. There are aspects to the story that immediately will feel like throwaway dialogue or one-off scenes to pad time, but what I found astonishing was that each and every little piece connects to a bigger picture, and once you start to understand how the grinds turn in this giant machine, you start to truly appreciate what the movie is trying to communicate in if you’re still paying attention. Like most heist films, it does take a degree or two of sustaining disbelief, being that some of these methods to get the cash rely on faith at best, so it’s in those aspects of the film that I feel people will either be on board or not when it finishes their overall dissection on the picture.

The film is very funny and responsible with its dialogue and depiction of Southern U.S.A without feeling too truly overbearing on stereotypes or cultural perception to an insulting degree. I feel like Soderbergh understands these small towns and the conversations alike, so much so that he conveys between these colorfully animated characters that he orchestrates with a light-hearted element of focus on family and the importance that it plays into every decision.. I compare it a lot to ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’, in that so much of their disconnect from the rest of the world isn’t seen so much as something that is lacking, but rather an educational spin on atmosphere that could help everyone outside of the bubble understand their knowledge of the way the world spins tri-fold. Steven’s award winning cinematography behind the lens is also important in said atmosphere, mainly because his exceptional work in editing and pasting keeps the air fresh with movement to feed into these vulnerable angles. Some scenes will have you wondering why they were depicted in such a manner, mainly the crotch shot of Daniel Craig doing push-ups, but it’s to constantly remind audiences that this is a comedy first, and it is one that goes hand-in-hand with juggling such extreme consequences that come with laying it all on the line for one wealthy score.

If there was a weakness to the film for me, it was as I mentioned earlier the spotty third act that feels like it prolongs the dramatic pull long after we as an audience have crossed that bridge, as well as a twist during the third act that frankly doesn’t make sense. A certain A-lister is introduced to the film with only twenty minutes left of it, and it all felt like slightly unnecessary tension that honestly goes nowhere with the film’s ending. Just before the credits roll, it’s kind of left in a hinting way that this story is far from finished, and that feels like a cop-out with how cleverly decisive everything was wrapped up in the closing moments from seeing the whole plan play out in real time. It sticks out more evidently because the first two acts of this movie are so crisp and careful in its planning, choosing to focus more on the build-up to the big day, rather than the heist itself, and it’s incredibly smart in this direction. Once we care about the characters and what is going into every measure of this plan, the impact of it all will connect like falling dominos one clap at a time.

This especially well-rounded cast also does a marvelous and committed job to their characters, sticking to details in personal traits that held up astoundingly through two hours. We can all silence the doubt that Channing Tatum cannot act anymore because this kid can lead a film with such heart and empathy that it makes you almost forget you are watching one of the best looking men in Hollywood, and instead seeing a small town hick with a bad knee spitting tar. Tatum’s accent is consistent throughout the film, and I feel that he has always flourished with wacky comedies like this and anything from the Coen Brothers. Adam Driver for me was the true whirlwind of this picture however. We’ve gotten to the point where Driver is so much more than just delightful with his dry delivery, he’s also gravitating an emotional pull under the surface that channels a side to humanity that very few are able to pull off in 21st century cinema, and I credit him for being so much of the movie’s pulse when sometimes the moral fiber is wearing thin. The reason for a lot of that is Daniel Craig and his unforgettable turn as explosives expert Joe Bang. With a name like that, you know you’re destined for a layered wild card of a character, and Craig certainly doesn’t disappoint, exchanging his English accent and Bond tuxedo for a Southern drawl and bleached blonde hair that truly brings out the hick in him. Craig is possibly the last guy I would expect for a role like this, so it makes it all the more mesmerizing when you see a suave actor like him commit and have fun to a role that couldn’t be any more polar opposite of his demeanor. A true hoot.

THE VERDICT – ‘Logan Lucky’ races to the finish line ahead of most of the pack in the overcrowded heist genre, and does so with one of its master drivers at the helm. Soderbergh’s much anticipated return to the silver screen is a fun thrill ride that does skid at the end of the journey, but the entertainment factor of a big list cast, as well as a carefully mapped out script, gives this one enough traction to pace itself through the slick turns of dramatic digestion that sometimes oversells itself. With a successful comeback, perhaps we are the lucky ones.

7/10

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

Even a ruthless hitman needs protection, so he calls on ‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’. The world’s top special protection agent (Ryan Reynolds) called upon to guard the life of his mortal enemy, one of the world’s most notorious hitmen (Samuel L. Jackson). The relentless bodyguard and manipulative assassin have been on the opposite end of the bullet for years and are thrown together for a wildly outrageous 24 hours. During their raucous and hilarious adventure from England to the Hague, they encounter high-speed car chases, outlandish boat escapades and a merciless bloodthirsty Eastern European dictator (Gary Oldman) who is out for blood. Salma Hayek joins the mayhem as Jackson’s equally notorious wife. The trio must team together if they wish to defeat their ruthless stalker. ‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’ is directed by Patrick Hughes, and is rated R for strong violence and adult language throughout.

Remember that time when Deadpool, Nick Fury, and Elektra all teamed up to ruin the evil plan of Commissioner Gordon? That cute and colorful attempt at humor is going to possibly be the most memorable aspect of ‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’, a film so ridiculed by amateur filmmaking that even the charismatic combination of two charming male leads isn’t enough to overcome its deficiencies. This film serves as the latest in 90’s action comedy buddy flicks like ‘Money Talks’ and ‘Bulletproof’, that draws a noticeable rinse, wash, repeat outline to its script, offering nothing new to make it memorably salvageable. Of the two films I mentioned, the latter one feels eerily similar to the very outline of this movie, in that two rivals must team together after one has wronged the other, they take a cross country trip together that takes them through the backroads of some pretty silly situations, and it all centers around the concepts of taking a bullet for one another. That’s not to say that ‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’ is ripping off ‘Bulletproof’, it’s just that this genre of film has been tapped so dry that the only thing interchangeable at this point are the actors who can personalize it to theirs and the audience’s amusement.

Before I begin to critique this film, I will tell you that the performances lift my score dramatically, and kept a lot of this generic action movie fresh for me. I have always been a huge fan of Reynolds, but he’s best when he has a force of equal value to bounce off of. As the deadpan, straight man of the movie, Ryan is irresistible when it comes to drawing a smile out of you, even if it comes at the expense of his character’s calculated precision. With Jackson, it’s everything at an opposite. His character thrives on impulse and rash decision making, so when these two come together, they make a dynamic duo that equally compliments one another fluently. The film definitely moves accordingly whenever these two are on-screen, but what does the rest of it offer? Well, an R-rated performance turned in by Salma Hayek, who is easy to fall in love with, but isn’t the widest range of character once you’ve seen her material on one scene. The film refuses to elevate her as anything more than this expletive instilled firecracker who serves as nothing more than the trophy to that of Jackson’s character, and that is a missed opportunity of shame. Gary Oldman hands in another committed antagonist performance, mimicking his German accent with range and consistency that never flounders. The unfortunate aspect with him is that the film kind of forgets about him during a second act that fluffs the past rather than enhance the progression of the current. By the end of the movie, we’re supposed to feel intrigue towards his terrifying plot, but the film hasn’t approached matters from his point of view enough, leaving us with a set-up that is just put in pause until our two heroes can save the day.

As for that script, there’s many problems, but the most apparent to me was the jumbling of atmospheric mood for the film that tries to be too many genres at once. First and foremost, this film thrives best when it is a goofy comedy that stands tall with the personalities of its two leads. There’s also action, and that is Ok until the movie tries to blind us with a side that we haven’t grown to expect; violence and terrorism that speaks wonders to a serious side of film that feels out of place in this plot. During the nauseating third act of the movie, there’s also a switch to infuse some romance into the fold, concocting an overstuffed sandwich that feels harder to swallow the more we continue to chew on its ever-changing atmospheres. For my money, this film could afford to shave about fifteen minutes off of its runtime, most notably from a dependency on five different flashback scenes that fluff the hell out of this 110 minute show. To make matters worse, the ending could’ve concluded three different times, but because so little has progressed most notably with the antagonist angle of the movie, we must tough out the murky waters of convolution during the final twenty minutes that does the pacing very little favors.

After directing ‘The Expendables 3’, the personal worst of the series, Patrick Hughes came back with this film to kind of redeem his influence behind the directing chair, and there’s kind of a noticeable personalization of his pictures that have yet to cast him into efficient filmmakers. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have his charms, but when I think about the visual presentation of this movie, it does leave so much more to be desired in a major motion picture. The C.G backdrops and explosions adhered to the same problems that 2015’s ‘The Transporter: Refueled’ experienced, in that there’s a noticeable dimension of off-coloring that peaks every time this effect is present, relaying a feeling of cheap ambiance that sets a small stage for the A-list cast to perform on. Beyond this, the musical score is among the worst of the year easily. At the beginning of the film, this music is blared to such ear-deafening levels that I couldn’t hear the opening dialogue of the movie’s first scenes. It also beholds that annoying gift where its easy tones do nothing in adding to the scene except to tell audiences audibly how they are supposed to feel because the producers feel they’re to stupid to understand something so basic. I could honestly make a review on this aspect alone, but I will only go so far as to say that visually and audibly this movie really let me down. It feels like it could be a spoof movie at times, but the film isn’t clever enough to capitalize on that kind of medium to bring the sensibility to such bland tastes in visual stylings.

The action sequences are hit and miss, providing a combination of chase sequences and fight scenes that cater to the catastrophic hound in all of us. For me, the chase sequences are where the money is. If there’s anything that Hughes has a knack for, it’s in the fast paced intricacy of plotting out a chase that is shot with exceptional confidence. The movements of the camera keep up fine with the speeds of these vehicles, even enhancing the editing with some experimental perspectives that refuse to ever settle for mediocrity. I would’ve been fine with chase sequences for the whole film, but there are fight sequences to make it all the more personal. There’s certainly nothing condemning about Hughes methods to shooting fight scenes. At the very least, he isn’t too close to the action to where the audience doesn’t register what is happening. My problem is that the camera movements here become slightly too ambitious, mimicking the movements of the actors rather than capture the magnitude of every crushing blow. This jerky style of shooting left me winded after one scene, let alone four different fight sequences that don’t get any easier on the eyes as the film progresses. Experimenting is fine, but I think too much movement can feel taxing to those watching closely for each balance of power happening in the scene. At least it’s not as bad as a POV shot, but too much movement sequencing these violent dances more often than not had me looking away.

THE VERDICT – This bodyguard can take a bullet or two and keep charging because of energetic performances from Reynolds and Jackson, two leading men who are far too great for this movie at this point in their careers. Hughes scattershot creativity limits the film in tone and sequencing quite often, even so that the laughs from witty dialogue fade into the air like smoke rings because of the atmosphere being too thick of genre recycling to withstand lasting power. This one earns its place in the late Summer graveyard, but thankfully its impressive cast will rise from the dead once they shake themselves of this pity project that constantly misses its mark.

5/10

Batman and Harley Quinn

The Dark Knight of Gotham returns to the animated silver screen, joining forces with one of his greatest nemesis, in ‘Batman and Harley Quinn’. The city of Gotham comes under grave danger yet again, this time under a poisonous spell from Pamela Isley (Paget Brewster), better known to her enemies as ‘Poison Ivy’, that transforms citizens into plants. Faced with a dire urgency to save the day and find out quick about their powerful foe, Batman (Kevin Conroy) and Nightwing (Loren Lester) seek help in the most unlikely of sources; the sinisterly dangerous Harley Quinn (Melissa Rauch). The trio collide on more than a few occasions, but learn quickly that they must achieve the common goal of taking down the Poison if they are to return to simpler times. ‘Batman and Harley Quinn’ is rated PG-13 for scenes of action and peril, and is directed by Sam Liu, the very same man responsible for some classic animated hits from Marvel and D.C.

It’s become a bit of a tradition to get a new Batman animated feature every year now, with Fathom Events, and ‘Batman and Harley Quinn’ continues that tradition with arguably the most clashing of ideals team-up that comes to mind. I was a bit disappointed with last year’s ‘The Killing Joke’, but If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve come to appreciate that film a bit more. That’s not to say that this newest chapter is anything terrible, it just feels so contradictive to what we have come to expect from the legendary D.C Animated Films productions that seem to get things correct when the live action movies do not. This film truly felt like one of those experiences where I myself had a lot of fun with what was transpiring on-screen, it just came at a steep price for those characters and concepts that I grew up, and how some less than stellar liberties were taken with their source materials. There’s some nice Easter Eggs in dialogue with past editions of Batman comics like ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, or even the original live action television show, complete with BAM!!! and KAPOWS!!! hitting the screen. But this (like other straight to video releases from D.C) feels like a chapter in itself, and that will undoubtedly divide audiences looking for more of a callback from the 90’s animated series that might just be the single greatest Batman offering that has ever graced a screen.

At least the animation is still carefully detailed, depicting the Gotham skyline with that same crimson red filtering above that reflects that of the blood spilled in these corrupt streets. This is the one aspect where I feel like fans of all Batman walks will agree that D.C continues to amaze. During an age when other studios have moved onto 3D outlines for their presentations, this company remains faithful to the style and traditions that brought it to the dance, echoing a rich vibrancy in color coordination, while never overdoing it into making Gotham somewhere that it isn’t. This definitely feels like a callback to my childhood days of soaking in the colorful personalities and costume designs within this world, but there’s enough experimentation to commend it for never playing things moot. Some of the fire and smoke illustrations are really attention-grabbing, and continue to move even when it feels like a character is in pause because of the next stenciling in page flips. The finale too, sets the stage appropriately once again for the central antagonist, immersing us into an ever-changing swamp that changes the more the situation does.

One thing that I commend these films for is that even though their visual stylings and plots can be considered for younger audiences, the material is anything but. This film has no problems with earning its coveted PG-13 rating, as there is no shortage of adult language exchanges, mature content in both the violent and sexual nature, and reliance upon comedic stick that does overstay its welcome quite often. I understand that this story relies around the Quinn character, but I feel that the campy vibes that radiate from this film are ones that do a disservice instead of an enhancement in creativity. I did laugh a few times, but there are plenty of examples of material that drowns on for far too long, feeling like a comfortable padding for the barely 75 minute presentation that we got. A fine example is a scene that takes place in a gay bar, complete with Harley musical performance and Batman pick-up lines. Awkward? a bit, but it pales in comparison to yet another unwanted sex scene between two characters that is every bit as unnecessary as it is cringe-worthy. Hinting is fine, but when the film stops to subject us through these sequences, I can’t help but feel bad for the youth in the audience who were as embarrassed as I was when I saw my first sex scene at 9 years old in ‘Heavy Metal’.

The script too has its problems, mostly because once again there’s an uneven distribution of plot progression that hinders our antagonists. Based on the title, it’s obvious where the film is focused on, but without that compelling antagonist plot to combat them, their journey of unlikely teammates doesn’t gel the way it rightfully should. I did enjoy seeing the daily life of Harley in her environment, as I feel it offered us a look at the human side of Quinn that we rarely get to see, especially in the day and age of the ‘Suicide Squad’ further diminishing her character origins. One problem for me that picks up in this film where ‘The Killing Joke’ left off was the notable absence of Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, or even Bruce Wayne from the fold. On the latter, I feel like it’s important to offer audiences an equal dose of Wayne versus Batman, and doing so only limits the true capabilities that a force like Conroy can convey. More on that later. A scene or two with these characters could certainly do wonders in keeping up the pacing, which does an alright enough job through the minimal runtime, but something great always beats something good. The ending left me slightly disappointed, mainly because one of the two antagonists is defeated in the most eye-rolling of ways, and the other we don’t get much of visually. The film just kind of ends with more of a hint than an actual result, and if this were a live action movie, I would be wondering if the production ran out of cash for a cheap exit like this one. Even the emergence of a D.C favorite hero felt completely unnecessary, especially when poked for fun by Harley herself after his brief cameo. It certainly doesn’t leave you with the greatest taste exiting this thing, and that is unfortunate because it feels like some solid performances were virtually wasted.

Upon them, Kevin Conroy is once again putting on a clinic as the defining Batman for all time. Conroy has been playing the caped crusader for over two decades at least, but he never feels redundant in his portrayals. Here, Batman is every bit as cryptic as he’s been, while playing into the intelligence that renders him a step above his competition. Kevin’s brooding release is everything that we have come to define for this character that was alive long before Conroy walked the Earth. Loren Lester adds up to one truly charismatic Nightwing. Not only was it nice to see this seldom used character depicted on screen, but Lester vocalizes him with the young adult side of the spectrum, falling for good looking girls, as well as fart jokes that he at least committedly plays into. The only performance I wasn’t in love with was Rauch as Quinn. The reason I say this is because she only truly channels one side of Harley, the jester, and leaves the menace in the closet for another actress to pull out. As the comedian Quinn, Rauch is well timed and articulately captures the Bensonhurst accent that is essential to the character. But I never felt the truly deranged side of her performance, and that missing link feels like only a half performance for such a complex antihero.

THE VERDICT – The newest Batman animated adaptation has wings, but quickly gets winded with a thin script, as well as an over-dependency of humorous material that frequently lets the air out of the mystic sails. Conroy and Lester make a solid team, and the animation is as good as it’s ever been. But the ambiguous ending leaves much more to be desired from the ambitious set-up that never quite quenches the thirst of the audience it narrates to. Even still, the nostalgic glee of the animated setting is worth the cost of a DVD evening in with your own Harley or Batman.

6/10

The Glass Castle

Author Jeannette Walls best selling memoir is brought to life in the big screen adaptation of ‘The Glass Castle’. A young girl who is the second of four children comes of age in a dysfunctional family of nonconformist nomads with a mother (Naomi Watts) who’s an eccentric artist and an alcoholic father (Woody Harrelson) who would stir the children’s imagination with hope as a distraction to their poverty and crumbling pieces from within. Years later, Jeannette recalls and confronts the past that has shaped the woman who is anything but similar to the ideals that she was raised upon. Now with a loving boyfriend and well paying job, Jeannette looks back with cynicism at a memorable childhood that alluded her. ‘The Glass Castle’ is directed and adapted by Destin Daniel Cretton, and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some adult language and smoking.

Very few films feel like they have the kind of personal touch that ‘The Glass Castle’ has on that of its penning author. After all, she experienced these things first-hand, so every kind of experience that the movie takes us through feels dependent upon the cast of characters who soak in the exchange of awkwardness between them, and articulately present and define when that line of wrong has been crossed. As far as family films go, this was a starting, eye-opening experience for the kinds of effects that one person can have on a family, creating a chain reaction that lasts a lifetime. Cretton’s film feels like it speaks volumes to the idea that we only get one chance at this thing, so we better get it straight while we can. Throw in four children on top of it, and the consequences of one man with a load of personal demons inside of him feels even more effective and even valuable because he speaks and acts for all of them. I found this film to be good, but not great, and there’s a few reasons for that final reaction, but most of them deal with the kind of misguided approach that the screenplay takes to adapting the fragile source material.

Attitude is everything in a movie like this, so when a film that has all of these terrible things that these kids have to go through because of their radical parents and their unorthodox style of living, the choice to accommodate them with forced humor feels terribly irresponsible. The whole film isn’t like this of course, but from the very start of this movie I sensed a great danger for these kids and this family even if the family and the movie haven’t figured out that revelation yet. There’s a cheesy musical score by composer Joel P. West that offers these light supple tones that feel so out of place that they couldn’t be any more opposite of what transpires before our eyes. Like i said, this does improve with greater urgency as the film chugs along, but from this intro in the first act early on, too many people could be getting the wrong message about the importance that the right mood plays on this story that if done correctly could send goosebumps into moviegoers and hook them into these problems from the very get-go of this movie.

The story is presented with two running timelines, past and present, that dive into the kind of cause-and-effects that Jeannette’s current attitude towards her Father in particularly has played into. For me, the more well-rounded and complete aspect of the movie definitely deals with the past, as it is in that part of the story where we not only spend 6/8’s of the movie’s two hour runtime, but also where the long term setups in foreshadowing lie. It feels like we are watching this family who are a danger to themselves play out a worst case scenario every time on the screen, but the disposition of being a kid growing up with an alcoholic Father hit a few notes for me that were all too close to home. Because of the uneven nature of how the past and present are depicted in sequencing, the current timeline with Brie Larson can sometimes feel like the speedbump that chimes in anytime the story is beginning to get good. There is a solid layering of dramatic pull and tension in this film, and those aspects in trauma force these children to grow up a lot quicker than they probably had hoped. The past is thought of like a ghost ravaging in the winds of change here, and it supplants more proof that who we are destined to become relies heavily on the ideals and morals of the way we are raised, something that Walls as an author humbles us with time-and-time again throughout the film’s complex psychological resonance within our leading lady.

With the ending, I feel like too much in the material was contradictory towards the previous 90% of the movie that showed us how appalling that Harrelson’s character was as the Father. The film builds up this repertoire that we know will eventually lead to Jeannette’s emancipation from her struggling family, then spins an unexpected left turn in the film’s closing moments by telling us to cherish the man who for all purposes serves as the film’s antagonist. Because of this, there’s a real taste of Nicolas Sparks films that nauseated me to the point of even the most extremist of surrealistic circumstances. That clinging to family ideals that nods and winks and tries to unsubtly narrate to us that family, above everything else, comes first. Not a lot of damage is done on the overall finished grade, but it left me leaving the theater on kind of an unnatural note for a begging of sympathy that the movie simply didn’t earn. With more earnestness comes more rewards, and ‘The Glass Castle’ could use more tough love on the audience, especially if it is reaching for the tears. Aside from that main grievance, the film is also about twenty minutes too long, and could use some shaving around the early part of the third act, where the film transitions more to the current day format.

As for the performances, it is in this aspect where the film earns enough praise from this critic to give to warrant this a must-see for fans of the book. Brie Larson is probably only in the movie for a total of thirty minutes, but there’s so much anger and retribution that is screaming to get out in her now cool-and-collected exterior that hides the feelings of the story deep down inside. As an Oscar winner, Larson knows how to channel grief, and as Jeannette, we meet a woman who grows up long before her parents ever do. Woody Harrelson is spell-binding in this film, and feels like he gives a performance that is maybe just one grade under Oscar worthy as Rex, the alcoholic dictator of this family. Woody begins playing him with the light-hearted lug of a personality that we have come to love from Woody, but he knows when to turn it off at the switch of greying skies. Considering the character’s expositional backstory is almost ignored entirely in the movie, Harrelson adds layers at a time to a man who feels like he is too proud and stubborn to ever admit his wrongdoings. There’s a moment in the film when Harrelson is battling his alcoholism tied down to a bed, and for me it was as striking a scene as Leonardo Dicaprio in ‘The Basketball Diaries’ when he is fighting to stay off of drugs. Definitely Woody’s best work in a decade, and well worth the price of admission.

THE VERDICT – The glass is half full with this adaptation of a best-selling memoir, but it’s lumbering spilling hinders on the little things wrong with the structure and tone that could’ve made it an early contender for Oscar praise. Larson and Harrelson boost two emotionally layered performances that toe the line of past and present accordingly, and the film’s well-realized drama does impact quite a few scenes before it is too late. In the end, it was catharsis instead of comfort that I needed for the ending, and those ill-timed misfires in direction left this castle with a few cracks in its otherwise smooth surface.

6/10

Annabelle: Creation

Everyone’s least favorite doll from The Conjuring series returns, this time to explore the horrors of her origin, in ‘Anabelle: Creation’. Several years after the tragic death of their little girl (Samara Lee), grieving doll maker Samuel Mullins (Anthony Lapaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) welcome a nun and several girls from a shuttered orphanage into their home, soon becoming the target of the doll maker’s possessed creation, Annabelle, sets her sights on the girls turning their shuttered shelter into a storm of terror. ‘Anabelle: Creation’ is directed by David F. Sandberg, and is rated R for horror violence, terror, and brief adult language.

David F. Sandberg has gotten off to quite the start in the beginning phases of his career, crafting two atmospheric horror films in last year’s ‘Lights Out’, and now being asked to turn around the ‘Annabelle’ sub-franchise. And while I feel that the former is definitely the better film between the two, Sandberg deserves all of the credit in the world for helming a passable entry to the ever-growing Conjuring extended universe that now has four films under its belt. One thing clear to me with this director is that tension is everything, and because of such, we are treated here to a time period piece in which environment is the most important pawn in this game of frights, making the most of every hair-raising moment on the arms of its moviegoers. Does it have problems? Of course. The same horror tropes that often overstay their welcome pop up on more than one occasion here, and prove that even as far as we’ve come from the horribly disappointing first film, we still have a long way to go before it competes with the equally enticing Conjuring chapters in the saga that have played a pivotal role in establishing how greatly anticipated and diverse that this genre can truly be.

Make no mistake about it, this sequel brings out the true technical approach to the many facets of production that went into this movie in supplanting it as something much greater than its predecessor. The sound mixing and editing is precise, echoing very little musical accompaniment, and instead letting the aura and awkwardness of the atmosphere surrounding this terrifying house play into what we’re enveloping. The lighting too is something that feels faithful to the time period, as well as beneficial to setting the mood creatively within the story. Since this is a film that appears to take place during the 50’s, the lighting doesn’t feel as advanced in color or magnifying glare, so even the daytime scenes show off this grainy filter that appropriately timestamps the era that the film had going for it.

The scares are definitely there for the newer and the old school students of the horror game who want to be chilled. Two sequences with grizzly imagery brought a solid wince or two from this longtime horror buff, and that’s saying a lot because I don’t frighten easily. A different approach to nightmare fuel used here is that this film surprisingly doesn’t use a lot of gore or blood in getting across its shocking visual details. Instead, so much of what is used here relies on these long takes that refuse to look away during even the most visceral of circumstances. This is very much a film that earns its coveted R-rating valuably and ethically, doing so without an overabundance of adult language or unnecessary violence that surround these kinds of films. The idea of these helpless children being sucked into something terrifying that they have no idea about is played into over-and-over again, supplanting itself with the kind of vulnerability and uncomfortable nature for our cast of characters that goes a long way in us as an audience seeing what is lurking in the shadows long before these kids ever do. Unfortunately, the jump scares don’t remove themselves from this film, and this movie doubles down on the approach that cheap scares equal lasting scares, a thought process that couldn’t be further from the truth the more that they occur. The movie has terrifying imagery to it, so the involvement of these cheap gags do nothing but cater to the inexperienced audience who know nothing of what it takes to channel true horror.

I greatly enjoyed the entirety of this mostly adolescent dominated cast of characters that carry the load effortlessly throughout. As the two best friends in the story, Lulu Wilson and Talitha Bateman offered these incredibly layered performances for these two female leads that slowly start to come undone the more that they learn about this doll and spirited presence. Wilson did a great job in last year’s ‘Ouija 2’, but I enjoyed her slightly more here because she is given the ability to show a variety of emotions that she must display over such a brief encounter with evil. In addition, Bateman might just be the stealer of the show here, breathing such helplessness one second and vibrant emptiness the next. As Janice, we meet a girl who is ripe for the picking because of her physical handicap, and it’s certainly not difficult to imagine why this spirit has first dibs on her. Besides the flawless repertoire from the kids, Anthony Lapaglia also does a stellar job as the Father of the deceased Annabelle. In this role, there is only a shadow of a man from the brief opening of the movie that we were growing quite comfortable with, and I felt that the progression of the Annabelle lore only progressed when he was on-screen, relaying the importance of his character for so much of the mystery in this story that had us gripping on.

As for the plot, I found most of the questions from the overly ambiguous original to be answered fruitfully here, but there was the occasional setup that didn’t make sense. For one, why this family who suffered a horrific incident with their daughter would bring a bus full of little girls to their house when they know a secret lurks between them. I found this angle to be very illogical, and its intention is never really answered beyond some momentary commotion that doesn’t amount to anything. What is valuable is that we finally get an answer to the importance of the doll in the scenario. Part of what made me angry during the first film was how this object did nothing to warrant the fear that we’re supposed to give, so in this sequel, the screenwriters addressed this topic wonderfully, giving us answers as to who does the killing when this doll doesn’t move for the entire movie. The pacing is solid, but is a little tough to get into from the opening of the film because a lot is kind of rushed by in the first few scenes instead of given time to properly digest, but the good stuff definitely comes to those who wait. The final thirty minutes is everything that you love about these movies because the confrontation between good and evil is a brutal one that keeps on coming. There are several false finishes to the ending that I thought worked magnificently, even if the ending did drag on for a scene too long, leaving that feeling of satisfaction from a solid scary movie removed a degree or two because it felt like the writers didn’t know how to end it properly.

THE VERDICT – Although still riddled with cheap jump scares and the occasional plot hole to its depreciation, ‘Annabelle: Creation’ should’ve been the only prequel to the two cherished Conjuring films that set forth quite the reputation for modern horror. The surprisingly valuable work from a top-notch child cast, as well as a springboard of technical achievements that shouldn’t be overlooked in a mood over gore direction that impresses, even if some familiarity of horror setups tends to rear its ugly head from time to time. Sandberg is definitely a horror director on the up, but this one does take some time for you to witness his exceptional qualities.

6/10

The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature

The gang of furry friends and lovable creatures are back, this time to do something much more urgent than cracking nuts, in ‘The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature’. Two years after the original movie, Surly Squirrel (Will Arnett) and his friends, Buddy (Tom Kenny), Andie (Katherine Heigl) and Precious (Maya Rudolph) discover that the mayor (Bobby Moynihan) of Oakton City is cracking one big hustle to build a giant yet quite-shabby amusement park, which in turn will bulldoze their home, which is the city park, and it’s up to them and the rest of the park animals to stop the mayor, along with his daughter and a mad animal control officer from getting away with his scheme, and take back the park. ‘The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature’ is written and directed by Cal Brunker in his first big budget presentation, and is rated PG for action and some rude humor.

Considering it was three years ago and arguably the very worst animated film of the year, ‘The Nut Job’ offers very little that comes to memory when I think about it now, and while this same problem might suffer the same fate with its unnecessary sequel, I can happily say that this is an improvement for the series that nearly meets the requirements to be an enlightening and entertaining movie for kids. Make no mistakes about it, some of the same problems involving inferior animation, limited storytelling involving cliche plot, and of course plain Jane characters who have little or no exposition for their respective arcs. Those problems are still there, but what ‘The Nut Job 2’ has going for it is that it truly feels like the makers of this film threw away all of the rules and just didn’t care as long as it was memorable. It attains this status at least temporarily because of a third act that completely flew off of the rails, and serves as a hotbed of anarchy that doesn’t stop until the credits end. That could be where this franchise finds its voice, even if it as at the hands of another sort-of loss with the overall finished product. The positive is that it isn’t a devastating one, and at least gives me some hope that a third film could turn everything around for this tortured story and characters if they just throw out the tired formula of what makes a good kids movie.

Yes, the animation continues to underwhelm, despite some much needed improvements to the backdrops that speak to that French artistic visionary of animation designs. Where this positive sticks out like a sore thumb is in the character dimensions and outlines in design that make the pop to the eye for all of the wrong reasons. Open Road Films still struggle when it comes to the live action movements of its animated characters, with everything from their speech patterns being dramatically off from what is coming out of their mouths, to the expressions on faces that don’t feel as detailed when compared to the flock of kids movies that are setting precedents today. But what those landscapes do with precision in beauty is float a dreamscape full of colorful residence that really pop in front of the camera. I can remember the first film being an ugly one because its backgrounds weren’t used accordingly enough to immerse the audience in this particular world, but thankfully ‘Nutty By Nature’ doesn’t have this problem, as it leaves little to the imagination of what can be done with story when it has a beautiful canvas to play out on.

This is really where the film suffers the greatest for me, because the first two acts of this movie are really just throwing a bunch of tired ideas at the screen and seeing what sticks. As seen before, there is the evil mayor of the town who has somehow gotten voted in despite breaking every zoning code, as well as human right known to man, but none of that matters because every kids movie needs a villain right? The film knows how overblown and laughably bare this antagonist feels because it chooses to focus so little of its 80 minute run time on him and his evil child who had some real possibilities when laid out in material that could’ve laid into the effects that bad parenting have on their spawns. I mentioned that this film barely breaks an hour, and what little of material that the film does try to progress forward is often times slowed down to a grinding halt when a new character is introduced, and this film has no shortage of them. Instead of presenting their introductions in smooth detail, the film supplies us with no fewer than three exposition montages that bring their stories up to date to this moment, and whether or not you agree with me that this feels like sloppy character introductions, you can’t debate that this method feels redundant by the second time it is brought up. The last half hour is easily the climax for my interest in this movie because it turns into kind of a shit show firework that lights the longest fuse to keep the madness running. I did laugh quite a few times during this part not only for the breaking of logic that was being displayed so non-chalantly, but because there are winks to some pretty sinisterly occurances that feel like the appropriate bone thrown to adults who have had to endure this series up to this point. That is what I want to see more of, and I hope that if there is a Nut Job 3, that it takes the risks that will award it the single craziest scene that I have seen in a kids movie in quite a long time.

As for the performances, there is certainly no shortage of credible actors and actresses who lend their familiar tones to these characters. Will Arnett has a vocal range that was made for children’s movies, emoting Surly as a know-it-all who sometimes gets carried away with his brash personality. Arnett takes this film on his back and carries it when it feels like no one else is getting a chance to. On that direction, I point to Katherine Heigl and Jeff Dunham who despite their generous influence on this script, underplay every scene-stealing opportunity that the movie gives them. Dunham in particular is the surprise here because his whole stand-up stick is based around vocalizing dummies that he brings on stage, but his presence isn’t enough here with energy in delivery to ever compliment his talented male lead. Jackie Chan was a solid addition as a mouse who is anything but just cute, but his character is introduced almost to the point of insult stereotypes, with oriental music and Chinatown backdrop being present to his arrival. The character almost becomes a running joke of itself before we ever learn anything about him, and that’s truly unfortunate for Chan, as his career is kind of in a comeback mode with a lot of buzz surrounding the upcoming ‘Ninjago Lego Movie’ and ‘The Foreigner’. Arnett sets the table, but it often feels like others are afraid to eat off of it, a true disappointment to a cast of A-listers who could’ve made their presence felt immensely.

THE VERDICT – It couldn’t have gotten worse than 2014’s ‘The Nut Job’, and thankfully it didn’t. ‘The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature’ still lacks the kind of creative bite in consistency to ever compete with the smarter, more ambitious competition of the genre, but the nourishment of this nut wasn’t as far of a reach when presented with an improvement in aspects of animation, as well as a leaning on the values of friendship that make the hearty center something more with this sequel. Maybe it’s the fact that I just saw ‘The Emoji Movie’ two weeks ago, but this film didn’t upset me anywhere near to the point that I was expecting, and hopefully the next nut will fall even further from this tree of familiarity.

5/10

Detroit

One of America’s darkest and most troubling nights is recalled in this part-fact, part-theory depiction of the racist fueled events that terrorized one of the biggest cities in the country. In ‘Detroit’, critically acclaimed director Kathryn Bigelow returns to her spot behind the camera, helming a drama recalling the true story of one of the most terrifying moments during the civil unrest that rocked Detroit in the summer of 1967. Amidst the chaos of the Detroit Rebellion, with the city under curfew and as the Michigan National Guard patrolled the streets, three young African American men were murdered at the Algiers Motel. 50 years after the events of July 25th, 1967, the question remains: what happened at the motel? and who is to blame? ‘Detroit’ stars John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, and Will Poulter, and is rated R for strong violence and pervasive adult language.

Kathryn Bigelow has always been a master of circumstance within a particular environment for her films, crafting her war films like ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, where the talented director has set a precedent for the way settings and atmospheres are to be established for the importance of their stories. For all of its merits on this subject, ‘Detroit’ might be the movie that elevates her already impressive resume to the kind of levels in diversity that prove she can tell a heart-racing story on any continent, during any time in history. ‘Detroit’ is the kind of film where you leave angry, but certainly not because you didn’t enjoy the film. Your displeasure is contributed mostly to the idea that even fifty years later, the war for equality for minorities is still being fought, reminding you just how little has actually progressed when you think about how these same kind of stories are in the news even today. Bigelow transports us back to a time-and-place within this city when racial tensions were already boiling over, but the pride of the patrons within this city wouldn’t let their injustices go unnoticed. It’s a big bang theory that evolves into suffocating tensions by way of the smallest acts being enough to reach a breaking point, and what is unknown about the facts, might be the scariest aspect to the event.

From a narrative perspective, the film’s 138 minute runtime are divided into three different ways; before, during, and after the tragic events at the Algiers Motel. This is a refreshing take because most historical biopics will usually only cover two out of the three, leaving some unanswered questions or motives for the audience to speculate on. Bigelow feels much more responsible in this method because she finds all three angles to be equally as important when contributing to the heart of this story. Yes, at nearly two-and-a-half hours, it is a notable investment on the audience, but it is this length of time that is needed to articulately depict a bad situation gone worse over the course of three nights. With that said, there are some small scenes that could’ve used an edit, but I was never taken out of the story completely, just curious to move on to the next confrontation for position between these two sides. As for those sides, the film is also responsible enough to not lash out or overly support either side to the point where the film becomes propaganda. The police force of Detroit are represented in a way that shows (like any other job) there are good and bad eggs that contribute to the cause, and that judging them as a whole (like minorities) is simply not the right kind of message.

What surprised me about the performances is that nobody stands out on a pedestal more than anyone else. That’s not to say that this movie doesn’t have a worthy cast, quite the opposite. It means that this feels like an ensemble piece instead, with the city of Detroit being the lone character in the film that is the one constant. Each human character like John Boyega, Will Poulter, and Anthony Mackie to name a few, come in and out of the story in the same manner that stage actors do, and that concept does result to sort of coming across as a stage play that is taking place at this troubled motel. Poulter is probably my favorite performance of the film if I am singling out anyone, and that makes me sick to my stomach to even compliment him for the malicious job he does here. As we know, every good story needs a worthy villain to increase your interest in the film, and Will is definitely the brains and the execution of these dirty police officers who often act with their emotions before they think with their minds. Boyega too is solid enough, but I was slightly disappointed with how little of a presence that he has during the second act. I thought this would be the film for him to carry, but his character just kind of blends into the fold of this bigger ensemble that each carries their own respective load.

Another aspect that shouldn’t be ignored is the beautifully layered cinematography by Barry Ackroyd that single handedly makes the immersive experience that much easier in taking in 1967 Detroit. The film’s overall look has a glossy documentarian kind of style to it, making us feel like we are watching historical footage that we shouldn’t be watching. The inclusion of stock footage shots in between each establishing or transitional scene makes the accuracy that much more appealing, and one that proves this production has definitely done its homework. As for Bigelow, she also commands such a presence behind the camera that includes us personally on each and every character perspective that the film takes us through. The shots are so close and invasive that there were those brief moments of tension within me that made me feel uncomfortable to even be in the same room as these disgusting acts that are happening. That aspect alone is a very difficult one to channel, especially to adult moviegoers, but it’s Bigelow’s ambition for setting and set pieces that spring forth the believability in every movie she helms.

THE VERDICT – ‘Detroit’ is without question the most important film that you will see in 2017. It’s a somberly poignant reminder of the kind of grizzly details from our past that will continue to haunt us until we as a society change for the better. This makes three films in a row that Bigelow has taken a true story and ran with it through artistically decadent and provocatively rich waters that grip onto the pulse of the American subconscious. By putting us right in the heart of the action, Kathryn forces us to take everything in without looking away, an eye-opening concept necessary for the forgetful. This was nearly two-and-a-half hours that shook in ways that horror films don’t do anymore.

9/10

The Dark Tower

Stephen King’s most epic saga of novels comes to life in the big screen adaptation, ‘The Dark Tower’. Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is an ambitious 11-year-old adventure seeker who discovers clues about another dimension called Mid-World. Upon following the mystery, he is spirited away to Mid-World where he encounters a Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), who is on a quest to reach the “Dark Tower” that resides in End-World and reach the nexus point between time and space that he hopes will save all existence from extinction. But with various monsters and a vicious sorcerer named Walter o’Dim, A.K.A the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) hot on their trail, the unlikely duo find that their quest may be a difficult and deadly one to complete, saving the world from a man worse than the devil himself. ‘The Dark Tower’ is directed and co-written by Nikolaj Arcel, and is rated PG-13 for thematic material including sequences of gun violence and action.

It’s difficult to gage where the big screen adaptation of the super popular novels was supposed to appeal to. For the people who have read what is critically acclaimed as his “Magnum opus” of books, this is as cheap of a knock-off as you could possibly get. A brash disappointment to the kind of fantasy dreamscapes and supernatural aspects that make it an irresistible piece of immersive literature. For those who have not read the novel, there won’t be much to grab onto either, as the film kind of requires that its audience must know the bare minimum of rules and logics within this world. Otherwise, the new fans will be clinging to any kind of explanation for something they don’t understand, making their first intake to this story one that is heavily flawed in storytelling concepts. ‘The Dark Tower’ feels cheap in every possible way because it cuts itself too short time-and-time again, choosing instead to follow the cheap and limited boundaries of a PG-13 young adult constriction rather than the R-rated Science fiction thriller that it should’ve been. As far as book-to-film adaptations go, it might be the most disappointing of all time, and feed into the theory further by some of the novels fans who claim that this series is impossible to adapt faithfully.

After doing some studying, I found out that this film is actually supposed to be a sequel of sorts to the novels itself, and not a take from the first novel, one of my personal favorites in the series. So already we as an audience are taken on a trek of betrayal by the film’s producers who have been promoting this like the next big series for quite sometime. Even this direction is heavily flawed in logic because the film takes characters like Jake Chambers and makes them a pivotal point in this story, while stripping them of anything that makes them remotely identifiable. In fact, this film is introduced by playing into Chambers story rather than Roland’s, and I found this to be a dramatically huge mistake that blazes a trail of displeasure much further than how terribly underwritten these characters really are. The narration feels like we should already know everything about these worlds and characters, and chooses to educate the new fans any further on what questions they might have. One that I myself as a fan of the novels brought up was the explanation for why The Dark Tower is essentially pointless in this film. The idea is that the destruction of this tower will cause hell to be unleashed upon our world, but that makes no sense when you consider that McConaughey’s Man in Black is already doing that, piling up body after body in his wake of devastation. In fact, the more you think about it, the bigger the flaw is that an antagonist who can click his fingers and kill people would need any further help in getting the job done.

This constantly feels like a movie that is being played in fast-forward, moving along with pacing that never stops once to take anything of the culture in to further the fantasy elements to the plot. Such an example of this is in nearly every single scene that involves Roland or Jake, as they are constantly preparing to travel somewhere other than where that scene is. If you wanted a terribly shitty cliff notes version of The Dark Tower folklore, then this will be right up your alley because it feels like the three different writers within this film have the attention span of an 8 year old child, choosing instead to speed their way to a final act and conclusion that set this thing at right under 95 minutes, the basic average of studio offerings. Imagine that you’re told by a studio to adapt the epic thousands of pages of material that you have written into 200, and try to make that compelling. That’s what the film is asking of us as an audience right here. If there was one benefit, there are some satisfying Easter eggs thrown into the film from time to time that range anywhere from other King novels like ‘1408’, ‘IT’, or ‘The Shining’. It was in this aspect and this one alone where this feels anything like its literary companions because The Dark Tower serves as the universe of sorts to the entire Stephen King Universe. So it feels like a tragic misstep when you consider how these eggs don’t even begin to scratch the surface of a much bigger picture.

The action is quite limited, but appealing when on-screen to some average CGI designs that are at least responsible enough to keep most of the shading problems of its creatures in the dark. The computer generated backdrops do work wonders for what little few chances that we do get to see the midworld, as well as the tower in this film, but it’s just a big shame that they are such a miniscule presence in a film that would rather base a majority of its visual compass in New York, a place with no shortage of big screen settings in film. The final inevitable showdown between The Man in Black and Roland feels so distanced between them, opting instead for the magic of both characters to their arsenal. What this lacks is that personal taste of vengeance for both of them that really sets it all off and leaves the audience on the edge of their seats, leaving an ending that was every bit the reminder of the previous acts that told me to never trust Hollywood again with timeless artistic expression.

As for the performances, there was definitely one shining example among the other miscast choices, and that was Idris Elba as The Gunslinger himself. Whether people want to admit it or not because of their color preferences, Elba embodies everything about being a magician behind the gun; heart, strength, and most importantly precision. With a gun, Roland simply cannot be stopped, and some of the trickery that the film focuses on with his hands make up for the lack of personality or backstory that they dispel upon him or any of the other two main leads in the film. As Jake, Taylor isn’t terrible, but there simply isn’t enough charisma in his deliveries to give this character the attention and the majority of runtime in the script that he so desperately craves. Again, possibly call it bad directing, but I lacked the empathy that I felt for Jake in the novels, especially considering his Father isn’t anywhere to be found in this story. It pains me to say this, but McConaughey was terrible as The Man in Black. Matthew underperforms every line of dialogue and sinister delivery to never make him feel like anything supernatural or unstoppable in his register. Even more apparent was just the lack of commitment that his line reads deliver, making me question several times if this really was the best read that the director decided to go with. To that theory, funny enough, there is a line where he talks about death always winning in the trailer, and it’s given with much more energy and emphasis than the scene used in the actual film. I can never understand why these kind of decisions are made in post production, but they do no favors for the legitimacy of a man who is deemed “Worse than the devil”.

THE VERDICT – Bad Stephen King adaptations are certainly nothing new to this critic, but ‘The Dark Tower’ feels like the first slap in the face of fans who have waited decades to see this epic play out on the big screen. The unlimited levels of potential are traded in for a rushed script that only borrows key aspects to the story without context, bland performances besides Elba, and a plot hole so big that you could fit an entire tower inside of it. When given the option to see this one, take the bullet and read instead.

4/10

Chuck

The real life story for the inspiration of Rocky Balboa comes to life in this eye-opening sports biopic from director Philippe Falardeau. ‘Chuck’ tells the story of the pride of Bayonne, New Jersey, a man who went fifteen rounds in the ring with the heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali, who may or may not have knocked the champ off of his feet. But before all that, Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber) was a liquor salesman and father with a modest prizefighting career whose life changed overnight when, in 1975, he was chosen to take on The Greatest in a highly publicized title match. It’s the beginning of a wild ride through the exhilarating highs and humbling lows of sudden fame-but what happens when your fifteen minutes in the spotlight are up? Driven by a committed performance from Liev Schreiber, Chuck is a refreshingly human tale of resilience and redemption. ‘Chuck’ is rated R for adult language throughout, drug use, sexuality/nudity and some bloody images.

‘Chuck’ was never going to be a better film than the 1976 Oscar winner for Best Picture counterpart that it so vibrantly echoes around, but what it does is peel back the glitz and glamour of a Hollywood movie by telling you about the real gritty ugliness that lies within the true story. ‘Chuck’ is thankfully another enlightening dose of reality from the same director who penned 2014’s ‘The Good Lie’, humbling his audience with what feels like one of the more honest depictions not only in the sport of boxing during the dark ages of exposure, but also the troubles associated with temporary celebrity that influence ones irrational decisions. It’s a dramedy that can sometimes feel slightly off with its creative tone, but being that Wepner was never one to shy away from kicking himself, the film feels obliged to run the course carefully. I enjoyed this film enough, despite it only briefly capturing the psyche of one of the 70’s most prominent personalities inside and outside of the ring. This is more of an outside perspective in the way that we as an audience are supposed to see Chuck, and because of that we are only offered temporary glances at trying to get close to this troubled character as an endearing protagonist.

The story takes us on a kind of cause-and-effect train when it comes to what inspired arguably the greatest sports film of all time, and does so in a way that still leaves plenty of room for the one-named title character in this film to tell his side. Chuck, like any of us, is seduced by what little fame he commands. As a local rundown fighter, he’s kind of seen as a joke within his community, so when stardom finally knocks on his door, he is more than happy to answer, and that choice comes with some steep consequences for the hard hitter as to how he handles it. The film has a constant responsibility in observing and contrasting the beat down that Wepner takes in the ring versus the one he takes outside of it, and the one constant is that this character knows how to take a punch and keep on moving forward. It’s certainly easy to pick out which points were lifted from Wepner’s life to compliment the Rocky franchise, but in this example it feels more emphatic than the homage of ‘Rocky’ because this after all is real life, a breaking of the fourth wall by watching a character on-screen who lived through all of these things 42 years ago. The tone to me could’ve used more of a dramatic pull, instead of the dark comedy that sometimes outlines the film’s events. I feel like everyone watching except Wepner is in on the joke, and that aspect feels like a heavily missed opportunity on understanding the epiphany within this character that happens a bit too late in his life.

On that ground, the pacing for me was the film’s biggest weakness, often rushing through the more important peaks of Chuck’s life without feeling much weight for the situation. At 97 minutes, this is a brief film for a biopic, so the movie’s first act speeds by without a single moment of patience to let it all sink in. There is a major change that occurs midway through the film for Chuck, but in the movie’s inappropriate tone combined with rushed plotting, it feels more like a temporary speed bump instead of something much greater, and it becomes slightly difficult to take this story seriously with the kind of attention that it needs when being compared to other true story films. There’s also some sloppy time transitional scenes that jump time without any kind of warning or leading up-to for it to make sense. One scene rushes three years forward after a scene in which a possible new love interest (Played by Schreiber’s real life wife, Naomi Watts) is introduced, looking like it might go somewhere. It doesn’t, and its importance is left without much reasoning. If there’s anything positive that we can say about this aspect, it’s that the film is a rather simple sit, and doesn’t drag or grind to a screeching halt before we hit the credits. The kind of stories that are interesting should be remarked as the ones that you want to see more of, and ‘Chuck’ for me could’ve easily used another half hour to let these events flow with the kind of fluidity that relates their vital importance.

I did however manage to find myself another noteworthy cinematographer, as Nicolas Bolduc’s style for the picture moved me miles into immersing myself within this particular era. The movie’s design caters more to a film that looks and feels like it was shot during the 70’s, instead of a movie that is just spoofing the decade. This accomplishment is tough, especially considering we are more than four decades removed from the setting of the film, but Bolduc’s attention to detail moved me immensely with the insertion of classic footage for the establishing shots, as well as a grainy layer to the coloring palate that makes ‘Chuck’ feel like you’re watching something shot for laser disc. The intro starts the movie off right, communicating to the audience the kind of setting that Bayone, New Jersey plays to in this kind of film, echoing the hippie generation in all of its drugs and devilish pleasures in one visually faded interpretation.

On the subject of performances, I thought that Schreiber put in the necessary time and effort to transform himself into an athlete that looks anything but what Liev does in his physical appearance. He becomes Chuck with a noticeable weight increase, as well as a prosthetic wig that nails down his commitment for the role. This was a dream role of sorts for Liev, and that shows in the morally flawed Wepner, a character he emotes with such shovanism and imagination that often both get him in trouble. Elizabeth Moss was also a breath of fresh air, playing Chuck’s emotionally fragile wife Phylis. Moss channels so much fire and emotional hilarity in her range that it can sometimes feel like she is too good for this kind of role, but it speaks depths that the film cares enough to make her a pivotal member of this plot even if it forgets about her halfway through. My lone problem with the casting was whoever was the agent who cast two polar opposites for Sylvester Stallone and Muhammad Ali that couldn’t be further from their real life appearances. I get that these larger-than-life people are difficult to cast, but I would’ve been fine with only hearing their voices while their backs are turned to the cameras. Their faces aren’t even close to the original thing, and it’s an aspect that broke my concentration every time they popped up on screen.

THE VERDICT – ‘Chuck’ is a stiff jab to the chin, but lacks the kind of tonal focus or steady hand patience in script to ever command knockout power. Because of the committed, durable performances of Schreiber and Moss, as well as a faithful brush of artistic stroke integrity that makes up the gorgeously decadent cinematography in the film, Falardeau can rest assured knowing that he has given the Bayone Bleeder one more round in the public eye. This one doesn’t quite go the distance, but it stands its ground with the other heavyweight contenders in an overcrowded genre that is only getting bigger. A constant reminder that somebody is always watching your story playing out under the eyes of the public lights.

7/10